It's only "rebels, lunatics and dreamers" that decide to get behind the wheel and race for a living, so quips Austrian driver Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) in the early moments of Ron Howard's "Rush," and there's an undeniable logic to his observation. For who else would willingly strap themselves into a fiberglass frame, powered by a 500-horsepower engine to drive at unimaginable speeds around a racetrack, where even the faintest hint of a wrong move could end your life? And who else would embrace the odds where at the beginning of each race year, it's known that an average of two drivers will die out of a field of twenty-five? Well, Lauda is one of those people, as is Englishman James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), and together they made worldwide headlines for their intense rivalry and passion for the sport. Howard's film matches that fuel-injected devotion in a film that goes beyond mere sports biopic to tale of two men forged by gasoline, jumpsuits and ambition.
But before they even traded barbs for the cameras and press, they were butting heads as amateurs. The film wisely spends time on the Formula 3 and Formula 2 circuit as both Lauda and Hunt make their name and raise their profiles while keeping a close eye on each other's successes and failures. Ironically, though they later were almost instant foes, Lauda and Hunt shared similar backgrounds, both coming from families of money and privilege and trading in an easy life riding on that success to chase the dream of zooming past a checkered flag. And that's where the similarities end, because in almost every other manner, the two couldn't be more different. Hunt is a dashing, handsome playboy who rules behind the wheel by facing death without blinking, driving with his heart first and reason second. Meanwhile, Lauda admits if he had more talent, he'd earn money doing something else. But as it is, he approaches shifting gears with a scientific, logical mind and a rigorous ethic that leaves no room for anything but a strict discipline in all aspects of his life in order to become a Formula 1 champion.
The script by Peter Morgan—in his second collaboration with Howard after "Frost/Nixon" (they are also working together on the director's next film, "In The Heart Of The Sea" once again starring Hemsworth)—builds this foundation with a measured opening act that is confident, even if it follows the general template for this kind of film. But it pays off, because once the picture enters the second act, that groundwork is a rich foundation allows "Rush" to elevate beyond its genre trappings. From the middle of the film onward, the narrative zeroes in on the 1976 Formula 1 race season, which fans will already know was all about the neck-and-neck Lauda and Hunt showdown for the title of World Champion. But even if you don't know your fan belts from spark plugs, it's not long until you're pulled into this undeniably riveting tale (which we won't spoil here if you don't know what happens).
And there are a few factors that make "Rush" work as surprisingly well as it does. The first is Howard himself, who has always been something of a conventional, safe director who generally doesn't push the envelope or make too many waves stylistically. While he does go beyond his usual boundaries here, he's wise enough to know to hold it back just enough from tipping over into a jumble of hyperkinetic cuts and edits. The filmmaker does little more than take the audience into a revving engine of thrusting pistons, giving them the viewpoint from behind the visor (and from a bird eye's view above) to provide a sensation of the races, while a startlingly effective sound mix of deeply felt motors rumbling transmits the raw visceral, and yes masculine power that draws both men and women to the track. The races are simply breathless to watch (helped along by Hans Zimmer's pulsating score), even if you know the twists and turns of the story, while Howard always make sure the viewer knows exactly how everything is playing out cleanly and clearly.
But the magnetism of the gears and shafts is nothing without the men behind them, and Hemsworth and Brühl do some great work. In the case of the former, it's confirmation that he can do much more than wield Thor's hammer, even if he's still trading on his blonde locks, steely gaze and sexual confidence. Performance wise, however, the films belongs to Brühl, who delivers a terrific turn and is given a character whose journey is perhaps the most substantial. As unliked and unloved as Hunt is adored and embraced, Lauda is forever an outsider even to those closest to him, a chilly asshole who is unapologetic about his own ego and do-everything-possible-to-win attitude. But watching Lauda learn to be vulnerable and accept his limitations, as channeled through a prickly but then rather warm and humane performance by Bruhl, is one of the film's real joys. And Morgan gives Bruhl and Hemsworth some great scenes throughout the film that sees their relationship evolving to respect and admiration for one another than is never sentimental or false.
Unfortunately, this assured hand on the material isn't felt entirely through the film. The female characters in particular are given short shrift, with Olivia Wilde given little to do as Hunt's first wife other than try on a British accent and wear a few low-cut dresses. Even worse off is Alexandra Maria Lara as Lauda's wife, Marlene, who mostly looks concerned for much of the picture. An initially promising voiceover, which sees the true-life events narrated from both points of view, is suddenly dropped only to be chunkily added again toward the finale. Speaking of which, "Rush" closes with a rather perplexing scene that exists for no reason other than to underline and highlight the themes the movie transmitted so well for its previous two hours. It's a simply unnecessary grace note.
These minor blips aside, "Rush" is a pretty thrilling piece of pop entertainment. It's excitingly assembled and moves like a bullet, highly engaging and nerve-wracking when it needs to be and light on its feet elsewhere. But outside of its in-the-moment pleasures, its story about two men who inspire greatness and need one another to achieve their highest aspirations gives it a substantive backbone that makes the film all the more satisfying. Slick, quick and rousing, "Rush" is like making a hairpin turn at hundreds of miles per hour just in time to cross the finish line in first place. [B+]